“We wanted to do an album that could still stand up if somebody knew nothing about us...” hmv.com talks to Sparks
Over the last 45 years, eccentric pop/rock duo Ron and Russell Mael – better known to most as Sparks – have made a name for themselves as one of the most unique and idiosyncratic bands around. In recent years they've been enjoying something of a renaissance, partnering with Franz Ferdinand for the 2015 album FFS and working on a radio musical commissioned by Sweden's Sveriges Radio on the subject of one of the country's most famous filmmakers, Ingmar Bergman, as well as providing the score for Leos Carax's upcoming film Annette.
In the meantime though the duo have been working on the first 'proper' studio album since 2008's Exotic Creatures of the Deep. Hippopotamus arrived in stores on Friday and looks set to score the Mael brothers their highest-charting album in the UK in decades. With Sparks currently on tour in Europe to promote the new album, we spoke to Ron Mael about their enduring quest for experimentation, the benefits of having your own studio, and what we can expect from their upcoming live shows in the UK...
Your last couple of projects have been quite different from the things you've done in the past, why did you decide to return to doing a more traditional album this time?
“I think in a way it was like a reaction to working in those other ways, I mean just musically we had worked in an extended narrative way for quite a long time, we'd been working for four years on the movie thing. So the FFS thing got us excited about working that way again, with a band format and working with three and four minute songs as opposed to extended things, and doing it in front of a live audience. Those were the things that we really noticed we had missed.
“So when there was a gap in working on the film thing we decided to just take advantage of it and see if we could come up with a Sparks album that was more traditional, if that's the right word for anything we do, but an album that was different to what we'd done for quite a few years, and we were really pleased the results of what we were doing early on, so it was exciting for us that we could still work in that kind of way. But honestly, it wasn't that we felt we were working in a lower form of music or anything after doing something else, this has always been our real passion.”
At this point in your careers, after more than 20 albums, what are you looking to try and do when you set out to make a new record?
“Well, I don't know, we really have a passion for pop music and we also wanted to see how far we could expand the format of what a pop song is. In this case it was about wanting to do something more immediate, but we also wanted to make sure that what we were doing wasn't just going through the motions. At this point, people that know about us expect something special, but also we're at the stage where we want to do something that's reaching other people. We wanted to do an album that could still stand up if somebody knew nothing about us and still think it's amazing, as far as we can control that.”
Does there need to be a specific reason or a concept behind what you're doing?
“I mean there wasn't a lyrical concept, or even really a sound thing other than wanting it to be based around a band and for it to be something that we could do live, and we were really happy that the songs seemed to be in a lot of different styles and moods, so when we came to the end of it we had 15 songs for the album, which is more than we've ever had. We've gotten pretty good at being harsh towards ourselves as far as judging things goes, but it all seemed like it kind of made sense to have all of them, there weren't really any songs that we removed or that shifted the balance in a way we weren't happy with. We've been really pleased with the way we've been able to present it live, and with the reaction that we've been getting has been really strong and really encouraging.”
Why did you choose the title Hippopotamus?
“It was named after the song of that name on the album. We had been writing in two different ways, sometimes there's a song I write in my own place and bring it kind of finished to Russell's studio and we record, but then we like to do a lot of things where we're experimenting more and that song was the result of just playing in the studio to see what we would come up with. That track seemed so unusual, even by our standards, that we wanted to find a title that matched that eccentricity. So, I don't know, just the sound of that word kind of popped up and then it was just working backwards to figure what a song called 'Hippopotamus' be about. It sounds strange, but it just seemed natural for it to be where a guy comes out and sees a hippopotamus in his swimming pool, and then various illogical objects begin appearing in his pool after that.”
How does the process work in the studio these days? Does that fact that you're brothers create a dynamic where you're both vying for control, or is it more democratic?
“Oh, no I think the fact that our roles are pre-defined makes for a pretty efficient way of working. Russell has this studio and he does all the engineering, but also since we do write in the studio a lot of the time then to say that I'm writing the songs is not exactly accurate, they are co-written in the sense of him working on the sounds and things. We don't feel at all intimidated to present ideas, they might go completely haywire, but it's an advantage of having your own studio.
“When we did the FFS project it was exciting for us because we were working at RAK Studios in London, which is this historic studio, but you're always kind of thinking of how much time you're wasting by just trying something that probably isn't going to work. We never have that worry when we're working because if it doesn't work it's only a waste of time and not a huge amount of money.”
What kind of thing do you look to for inspiration when you're writing these days? Every new album of yours always seems to stand apart from everything else that's around...
“Well, we do listen to other things just to kind of hear the sound of things rather than the style or the songs, just to make sure that what we're doing is up to a sort of sonic standard, but we kind of work on our own level in a certain sense, so our direction is kind of there whether we want it to be that way or not. It's a sensibility that's kind of continued through everything, and so we've been trying to push every song as far as it will go in one direction or another, but everything kind of fits within a certain sensibility. Some people don't respond to that, but some do. Those things are just out of our control, really.”
What are your touring plans for the new record? Are you doing many shows in the UK?
“Yeah, yeah we're playing now in Europe, in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, then we're coming to the UK starting in Edinburgh, and we're doing I believe seven or eight shows in the UK. Then we play Paris and we go back to the States and play New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, then we go to Japan. So it's a pretty extensive tour for us. Maybe for some bands that's a warm-up, but for us it's extensive!”
What sort of thing can we expect from your live shows these days? There's always an element of theatricality in what you do musically, is that matched on stage?
“Well, yeah, we've worked sometimes in the past with projections and different kinds of more obvious visual theatre effects, but this time around we kind of figured that just the material and our nature, there's enough theatricality there already. Just presenting it as a live band is going to have a theatricality of its own, there aren't many extraneous things. Even just the sound aspect, everything is completely live this time around, whereas in the past we've computers or whatever to either augment the sound or even be the main part of it. So it's theatrical just by the nature of the songs I think, and by our personalities, we kind of apply theatricality to what we're doing.”
Hippopotamus is available in hmv stores now, you can also find it here in our online store...